Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday

I have never attached so much importance to my own person that I would have been tempted to tell others the story of my life.

Stefan Zweig was a well-known author when he penned that opening line to his autobiography and he acts on it. It's the least personally revealing autobiography I can think of. His first wife shows up only as an element in the occasional 'we'. If you didn't know she was there, you might think he was being royal. His second wife features in an anecdote about his life as a refugee from Hitler, but she herself is little more present than his first.

We get a little more information about his Jewish parents: his father made money in textiles; he made the transition from shtetl to industrialist. His mother's family was an old banking family. Thus Zweig himself was the second son of a haute bourgeois family. (Though we don't learn anything about that older brother.)

None of that much matters, though; that's not what he's interested in. He's a young man interested in the arts:
"I had not read La Bohéme for nothing, without wishing at twenty, to live a similar life."
I find it interesting he says 'read.' The opera I see dates from 1896 and would have pretty brand new when he was twenty; the book is 1851.

Zweig emphasizes his interest as a collector: he searches out manuscripts of Goethe, Beethoven, and Mozart, and particularly those that show the moment of creation, and that's what interests him in his personal life, too. There are various reasons I was interested in this book, but one of them is Zweig's interest in Romain Rolland; Zweig wrote a biography of Rolland in 1921 which I read last fall. He also wrote biographies of Emile Verhaeren, Paul Verlaine, and Sigmund Freud, among people of his own time, as well as various historical figures. He meets James Joyce and offers to translate Portrait of an Artist into German; André Gide visits him at his flat in Paris, and tells him only a foreigner could find so lovely a spot; Zweig helps save Rilke's library, stranded in Paris during World War I; Richard Strauss uses Zweig as his librettist and has to defend the resulting opera against the Nazis; Zweig visits Freud in London and introduces him to Salvador Dalí. Zweig happily puts himself in the middle of the cultural world.

Zweig is endearingly modest about his role; though he knows he's a success, he's not impressed with that part, and what he wants you to think about, and hope for, and work for, is the cultural unity of Europe.
All peoples feel only that a strange shadow hangs broad and heavy over their lives. But we, who once knew a world of individual freedom, know and can give testimony that Europe once, without a care, enjoyed the kaleidoscopic play of color. And we shudder when we think how overcast, overshadowed, enslaved and enchained our world has become because of our suicidal fury.
Sadly all too relevant today. He quotes, with approval, a letter from Rolland, written during the first world war:
Je ne quitterai jamais mes amis.
and one feels that would be true of Zweig.

But let us hope, especially today, with the chaos of the English vote and the assassination of the Europhile mayor of Danzig, that his nearly final words won't apply: most cherished aim to which I had devoted all the power of my conviction for forty years, the peaceful union of Europe, had been defiled. What I had now feared more than my own death, the war of all against all, now had become unleashed for the second time.
I read it in the seemingly anonymous, first English translation of 1943, reprinted in the 70s with a useful introduction by the translator and scholar Harry Zohn. That's what the Toronto Public Library has, but it has been retranslated by the late, great Anthea Bell, which I assume should be preferred.

The other reason this crossed my radar was that Wes Anderson said it was an influence for The Grand Budapest Hotel; who knows what enables Wes Anderson to do the (amazing, IMHO) things he does, but the connection between the two seems a bit tenuous frankly.

Zweig is the great pan-Europeanist so the book could qualify for a number of different countries, but since he was born in Austria, and came later he says to feel a certain Austrian patriotism, I'll count it for Austria for this year's European Reading Challenge:

And at 454 pages, plus a separately numbered preface, it qualifies, although just, as large enough for my Chunkster Reading Challenge:

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